ROME – It has been a rather calamitous summer for United States soccer. First, the American men get schooled by Mexico in the Gold Cup final at a teeming Rose Bowl, a performance that underscored the talent gap - chasm is more like it - between the two rivals.
Then, in the U-17 World Cup - the one eventually won by home-standing Mexico - the Americans were embarrassed by Germany in the knockout phase, losing by four goals. As for the U-20 World Cup, which begins later this month? The United States failed to qualify.
And yet, the worst news for American soccer this summer could come Sunday - if the United States wins the Women's World Cup.
There has been much to admire about the United States' run to the final in Frankfurt, where they will play upstart Japan.
The good old romantic American character traits of grit, hustle and determination have lifted them past Brazil in the quarterfinals and France in the semifinals, both in dramatic fashion. (Their effort, it should be noted, has also supplied the same sort of easily packaged storyline - heavy on the schmaltz - as the pig-tailed All-American "girls" in the 1999 World Cup.)
The problem is the big picture.
If the United States wins, it will validate an increasingly outdated style of play: one that values speed and strength over skill and imagination. And that would be awful for American soccer.
Remaining married to those qualities - from the youth levels on up - is going to continue the United States women's steady backsliding over the last decade. Soon, they will be in the same position the men find themselves - hopelessly overmatched against the world's elite.
It is already happening.
Watching France and Brazil elegantly and consistently move the ball in and out of tight spaces against the United States with great skill and vision it was hard not to think: geez, was it only a generation ago that the Americans, with unmatched power and pace, ran roughshod over all but a few nations (China and Norway)?
What has been on display in Germany does not appear to be a fluke. The United States women were beaten last year by Mexico for the first time ever, and nearly failed to qualify for the World Cup. Last summer, the United States was eliminated from the U-20 World Cup in the quarterfinals - its earliest exit ever - while the U-17 team failed to qualify.
Then consider the five goals the United States has scored in the last two games: a corner kick, two crosses, a breakaway and an own goal. The only bit of imagination came from Carli Lloyd, whose clever back heel freed Heather O'Reilly down the left flank. Her cross was deftly redirected into the net by Lauren Cheney giving the United States an early 1-0 lead against France.
The Americans then went an hour before they put another shot on goal.
The two supposed next-big-things, Amy Rodriguez and Alex Morgan, have looked overmatched in this tournament, particularly Rodriguez, who appears to have no answers on how to beat a defender other than sprint past them.
This is not a condemnation of this United States players or coach Pia Sundhage, whose temperament is a perfect fit, but of the system and a culture that gave birth to it. The first time most of the players kicked a ball, it was probably in front of parents who cheered when little Johnny or Jane booted the ball far down the field.
Youth coaches pick the fastest and strongest players because they're the ones that will help them win tournaments. (It's easy to imagine Lil' Messi or Xavi being left on the sidelines as kids.)
And, too often, developing the problem solving that is required at the world-class level is a casualty of trying to win. (Example: kicking the ball out of bounds under pressure robs players of the trial and error of figuring away out of their predicament.)
While it is simple to shrug, say so what and point to the scoreboard, look at what is happening in men's soccer.
What Barcelona and Spain have done is prove that creative, attacking soccer and winning do not have to be mutually exclusive. And Germany has transformed itself from a pragmatic, build-from-the-back outfit to one that attacks with exciting young stars like Memut Ozil and Thomas Muller - all while winning. In the last five years, Germany has reached the World Cup semifinals twice and the European Cup final once.
So, back to the women. As Brazil and France - among others - are able to match the United States' organization, fitness training, strong goalkeeping and attention to detail on defense, it appears only a matter of time before the Americans are looking up at them.
It is something to consider Sunday when the Americans, trying to get by again on steely determination and the hard head of Wambach, are again chasing the ball against artful Japan.
A victory for the United States might be reason to cheer, but if there was a real commitment in this country to playing the beautiful game - instead of the brute-ful game - that would be a real reason to celebrate.